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A Psychological Thriller That Leaves Audiences Laughing

Macall Pullay/Fox Searchlight

Why is it called Stoker? Is this some optimistic reaching for the moods of Bram Stoker and a signal that there will be blood? Or was the enterprise fearful that the full name of the central character, India Stoker, was loaded with misleading suggestions? Was there even a lofty insouciance that said, let the audience work these things out—what’s an audience for? Often enough, that’s a fair principle. We should be encouraged to work, even if the labor needs to be free from stress or sweat—such as an Indian stoker might know toiling beneath decks. But another thought persists: It’s called Stoker because no one knew what the film was about.

We are in the country, at a large, wealthy house with an expansive, wild garden. India Stoker is the child of the house. She is described as a high school senior, but she is played by Mia Wasikowska, who will be 24 later this year. Once upon a time American high school students were that age: James Dean was 24 when he made Rebel Without a Cause. But these days, we are more alert to the shadings of age and development in the young, so India seems dangerously repressed or undeveloped, and Wasikowska has been encouraged to play the part on the edge of psychic shock. In truth, she doesn’t “leave” that impression; she makes it as large, odd, and menacing as having a pet elephant in the house. But one can see why she might be odd. Her dear father has just been killed in an inexplicable and therefore unexplained car accident.

That leaves India with her mother, Evelyn, who is played by Nicole Kidman. Now Kidman is old enough to have a 24-year-old child, but never at any time do we feel kinship or a bond between the two actresses. The promotional material for the film claims that Evelyn is unstable. The truth and a cure are closer than you might think, for she is so badly written that Kidman’s considerable potential as a sexy but disturbed stepmother is blunted. The idea that they are mother and daughter is unbelievable, but never used as a fruitful lie.

But who should turn up at Dad’s funeral but Uncle Charlie? He starts off by being as handsome, amiable, and kind as Matthew Goode can make him, so why has India never heard of his existence? Well, experienced moviegoers read the tea-leaves as soon as they heard “Uncle Charlie”—that is the Joseph Cotten part in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. (I’m sorry I felt bound to mention that, because thinking of that 1943 film reminds one that real intrigue and complex psychological states have existed in films before.)

It’s not long before we realize that Charlie’s level, half-smiling gaze means no good at all, and barely conceals a psychopath. Life in the house ends badly, but well ahead of the close of this stupid but pretentious film, the audience is laughing in all the wrong ways. The script is written by Wentworth Miller, the actor from Prison Break, and the young Coleman Silk in The Human Stain. But Erin Cressida Wilson seems to have had a hand in it, too (she is credited as contributing writer), and she did the striking Chloe, as well as Secretary and the genuinely strange and unforgettable Fur: A Portrait of Diane Arbus, which also starred Nicole Kidman. I’m guessing, but I wonder if Stoker might not have been more lucid and valuably mysterious if Wilson had had more than one hand in it.

The film is directed by Chan-wook Park, who has a record with much more violent thrillers in Korean. We might be forgiven for thinking that he never quite understood or believed his story here, so he decided to throw every bit of “directorial invention” at it. Stoker is shot and edited within an inch of its life. It has spiders crawling up India’s leg, a roomful of her blue-and-white shoes, white flowers speckled with blood, and a frenzied editing scheme based on the notion that if a segue doesn’t work you can smother it in visual effects and chic dislocations in time. The editing is by Nicolas De Toth (who has done a lot of big action films) and the photography is by Chung-hoon Chung, Park’s collaborator on Korean movies like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. The production design is by Therese DePrez, who did Black Swan among many other films.

That trio has moved in and taken possession of the film, and there’s no denying that the result is pretty, spooky, and crushingly “cinematic.” But without a script that works and a director who understands this tenuous genre, the film can end up marooning its actors. Don’t compare it with Shadow of a Doubt (that’s no contest) but recollect The Others written and directed by the Chilean Alejandro Amenabar, in which Nicole Kidman was the disturbed mother to young children in one more beautiful but isolated house. The Others was not perfect, but it understood its own mood, and it used Kidman’s wide-eyed face to startling effect.

That was 12 years ago when Nicole Kidman was a star and a good actress, but now she has begun to descend the other side of the hill of her career. She looks better than she did a few years ago, but she needs to realize that now, as ever, nasty comedy is her strength and not romantic earnestness. She has all the talent and disposition to make Evelyn into a wicked sexpot stepmother who is in on the plot. As it is, she looks like someone with too little to do.

Mia Wasikowska is a bigger problem. She was outstanding as Jane Eyre; she had a hit in Alice in Wonderland; and now she has a vampire film with Jim Jarmusch and Tilda Swinton coming (she and Swinton play sisters—a reach, but intriguing). Born Polish but raised in Australia, Wasikowska has exceptional talent, but she needs to stop trying to be eighteen. As India Stoker she keeps a straight, forbidding face that could speak volumes with an understandable script. Matthew Goode moves like a man modeling clothes and he has the kind of smile that can turn nasty with one touch. He got this part when Colin Firth dropped out (take that as a shrewd move by Firth, who might have insisted on making Uncle Charlie a credible human being).

The violence in Stoker is restrained—though it is not absent. Alas, that is not a sign of deepening psychological interest. Stoker trembles between the portentous and the ridiculous, and I think you know which one is going to win. The audience does make its decision: They’ve been had yet again.